This question has been widely debated throughout the years by both psychologists and the public, yet to this day there is still no clear answer. Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist, and researcher Alfred Adler first developed the birth order theory back in the 20th century, in which he claimed that the order in which a child is born shapes both their development and personality. These are some of the personality traits that he deemed applicable to each child in the birth order:
Eldest children are the ‘overachievers’; the overly ambitious Hermione-Granger-esque hyper-independent leaders – the stubborn and outspoken perfectionists. They tend to be more family-oriented and feel a need to protect their younger siblings, almost as if they are a parent or caregiver themselves. This is the reason why eldest children are sometimes referred to as the ‘third parent’ in the family home. That is their job – caring physically, mentally, and emotionally for those they love. Additionally, various psychological studies have determined that eldest siblings tend to exhibit overachieving behaviour due to high expectations placed on them from caregivers and family members. Therefore, they develop perfectionistic tendencies which can be seen with their grades in school, sports, and even careers later in life. They are held at a higher standard than their younger siblings, as they are expected to be a good role model for them to follow. While being the eldest sibling isn’t exactly always sunshine and rainbows, there are most definitely some advantages. For example, they are (usually) the first to do everything, such as learning how to drive, staying out late or going to parties. Plus, no hand-me-downs!
Then there are the middle children, the so-called ‘forgotten children’ or the ‘middle-child-syndrome-sufferers’. ‘Middle child syndrome’ is yet another concept which was initially coined by Adler, in which he argued that middle children often feel resentful and bitter as they do not receive the same attention or privileges of that of their other siblings. There is no scientific evidence to determine that this is true, but that does not stop us from using this concept in our day-to-day vocabulary. They are usually more extroverted and more self-expressive, as since middle children lack the title of being the oldest or the youngest, they tend to shape an identity for themselves. In fact, according to Meri Wallace, a family therapist and author of the novel Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet The Challenges Of Their Birth Order details that “Middle children often go to an extreme to get attention, which is why some dye their hair purple or become a fanatic about a particular singing group-because they need an identity really bad”. Although being the middle child is usually seen as a negative position in family birth order, there are advantages to being the middle sibling. For example, they are rational, meaning that they make good leaders, and they are great empathisers.
The youngest children, however, have a reputation for being wild, rebellious, and confident. They usually have less responsibilities merely because they are the youngest and are generally coddled and spoiled a lot more than their other siblings by their caregivers. They get away with a lot more than what their older siblings do, simply because they are the ‘baby’ of the family and exhibit attention-seeking behaviour, which comes in the form of humour and natural charm. As caregivers can only give a certain amount of attention to their children, they may feel that they need to work even harder than their older siblings to get the attention they so desperately crave, due to the fact that they are the youngest. Despite this, it is rather advantageous to be the youngest child, seeing as caregivers are more relaxed when it comes to rules and youngest children are hardly every blamed for anything!
I do speak from experience, since I am the eldest of three children, and some of these personality traits do line up to a certain extent. I am the eldest, and I would personally say that I am the perfectionistic, overly ambitious type, however where I disagree with this theory is with regards to the quote-unquote ‘rebellious’ nature of the youngest child. Yes, my youngest sister would (and does) get away with murder, but I would not class her as a quote-unquote ‘angsty teen rebel’ at all. Rather, she is like me, detail-oriented and independent (but a lot sportier).
So, is there truth to this theory? Well, yes and no. While there are some common traits which each type of sibling has throughout the families across the country, ultimately, personality is heavily influenced in a social and familial way, especially by caregivers. After all, they are the first people you meet when you are born! It is also rather significant to note that Adler’s theories are not widely accepted by professionals, as his theories are quite outdated, and a person’s place in the family tree does not always dictate their identity and personality traits, seeing as everyone is unique in their own way. Thus, as of 2023, scientific research has not proven that there is a direct* correlation between identity or personality traits and birth order. However, such theories certainly act as food for thought when we reflect on how our upbringings have shaped the person we are today, and as a result, how we may choose to raise our own children.
*Voo, J. (2023) Everything You Need to Know About Middle Child Syndrome, Parents. Parents. Available at: https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/style/10-tips-for-parenting-middle-children/ (Accessed: 6 October 2023).